No Rapids success for Timbers, but all isn't lost

by: BART YOUNG A Colorado Rapids fan shows off his tailgate cooking before Saturday's game against the Portland Timbers.

As bad as their first counting MLS match was Saturday night at Commerce City, Colo., the Portland Timbers should be able to bounce back quickly from the 3-1 thrashing they got from the Colorado Rapids.

This week, the Timbers will play one of the weakest teams in the league, Toronto FC, a club that hasn't even made the playoffs in its four seasons.

Toronto lost 4-2 to the expansion Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday. Toronto is still in rebuilding mode and disarray.

Portland? Saturday's drubbing merely showed that the Timbers aren't likely to win the league title in their first year of financial promotion - which is really what it was - from the United Soccer Leagues.

The Rapids were simply much more in sync and aggressive than the Timbers for most of the match. The defending MLS champs caught the visitors with a left hook and then a right cross and then a hard uppercut before Portland had even settled into the fight. In a boxing match, this would have been a second-round knockout - bout over, bring out the smelling salts.

In soccer, though, you still have to play out the 95-or-so minutes, and when it's 3-nil, good luck. Any team in the world will take a 3-1 win in favor of doing something stupid that risks a catastrophic blowing of that advantage.

Colorado had enough chances to win 6-0, but even the MLS's best teams don't finish chances as well as the better teams you see on ESPN from around the world.

At first glance, the Timbers fared worse Saturday than many of their "minor-league" teams of recent years. Those Portland squads performed better against MLS competition in U.S. Open Cup competition or exhibitions. After 30 minutes on Saturday, curious viewers had to be wondering: THIS was the tremendous, unmistakeable jump up in class that was worth millions, including the loss of Triple-A baseball?

But I think the way the Timbers fell so hard in their MLS debut was more a combination of first cold feet and then shell-shock. To go back to the boxing analogy, the Timbers would have been happy to simply feel out the Rapids and stick their toes in MLS waters for the first 15-plus minutes - while the Rapids came out swinging like vintage Mike Tyson. After the first goal, Colorado seemed to sense that it could go in for the kill.

The game was painful to watch - especially with the NCAA college basketball tournament and the Trail Blazers a click away on the remote control. Even the 939th showing of Wanted II: Adventure Woman wasn't looking so bad in comparison.

As the goals piled up and the Colorado shot count kept climbing, somewhere Graham Day was wincing and saying, "It wasn't like this in 1975."

The best thing about the blowout loss was that it probably spared the casual FSN viewer about 50 to 100 more camera cut-aways to what was termed a "huge" crowd of Timbers fans, said to be more than 400. We don't need to see fans raising their plastic cups - a beer in each hand - every two minutes as their team is going down in flames or winning a meaningless midfield throw-in in the closing stages of the massacre.

So, the good news for Timbers fans is that their side will get better, for numerous reasons:

••• The first game was, well, a first game for one team, which ran into a good club intact from last season.

••• The eventual return of injured Timbers such as Troy Perkins in goal, Sal Zizzo in midfield and Darlington Nagbe on the attack should ignite better things in a few weeks or the coming months.

••• The Timbers have, by all accounts, a capable coach. John Spencer has MLS experience. He's not going to get fired anytime soon. The players know this. They know they have to perform for him.

••• Merritt Paulson has the money, and he will use it, to win games. If there's anything the Timbers have, it's resources and the ego drive to succeed.

••• The Timbers will have a huge home-field advantage, because most other MLS teams are not supported nearly as well, and it's a long trip out here for many

••• The league has a lot of parity. Unless the roof caves in, the Timbers probably will be like most MLS teams and win 10 to 15 games, with a handful or two of draws and 35 to 45 points. Maybe a few more, if all goes well.